Anytime I travel to a new country, I try to firmly immerse myself in the culture. As such, I’ve found the most fun/delicious way to do so is by learning about the food of the region. As Anthony Bourdain said, “Walk in someone else’s shoes, or at least eat their food.” (Check out the plans for his new market in NYC here.)
This can be a large endeavor, so some questions may arise. What if I’ve never seen this food before? Or, what if I can’t exactly tell what the filling inside that pastry will be? Or, what if I just wasted money on something that’s not that great? It can be scary to try new things, but the solution to all these questions is simple: eat at a food hall or open market.
Food halls are awesome for a few main reasons. First of all, going to a food hall is an event in itself. Personally, I can spend upwards of 2.5 hours wandering around a market, just staring at rows of seafood and salivating over baskets of tomatoes. Hence, this is a pretty good (free) way to spend an afternoon if you don’t feel like paying for an activity but still want to explore the local culture.
Some food halls, like the Mercado de San Miguel in Madrid (pictured above), have mostly prepared food ready to eat, while others, like the Mercat de St. Josep Boqueria in Barcelona, have a mix of fresh groceries and street food (learn about the Roman origins of street food here). These sorts of markets are a great way to explore what ingredients are common in local dishes, because there are usually stalls stocked entirely of spices, produce, or fresh fish and poultry.
Food halls are great because you can eat a meal’s worth of food while trying a bunch of new things. The servings are usually pretty small, since it’s expected that you’re eating on-the-go.
This means that each item is cheap; and if you don’t like what you get, there are always many more options to fill up on from other stalls. This gives you the freedom to try food that you otherwise might not have.
My strategy: try anything that I’ve never seen or heard of before (because once I go back home, who knows when I will get the chance to try it again?). Also, if you see lots of people eating the same thing, or lined up around a certain stall, that’s always a good sign.
Of course, there are food halls and open markets in nearly every city around the world, each with their own unique treats, so before you travel next, make sure to do a quick search (but before you go, make sure you know how to properly pronounce everything, so you can really live like a local).